Tucked among many of the world's great plays on Steven Schipper's lengthy career to-do list is the seemingly out-of-place fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood.
The reason for its inclusion goes back to 1983. Schipper was chowing down in the Stratford Festival cafeteria when in walked the company's artistic director and his mentor, John Hirsch, who had co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre.
"He was holding up a script as if it was on a silver platter," recalls the current MTC artistic director, then a National Theatre School graduate from Montreal. "I can't do justice to his Hungarian accent but he said, 'This is the most produced play in the history of the Soviet Union.'"
What Hirsch was brandishing was the Yvegeny Schwartz version of Little Red Riding Hood, a modern retelling of the traditional Grimm tale about a girl who encounters a wolf in the woods. That re-imagining celebrated communism in the way the forest animals rallied to the protagonist's defence against the prowling predator.
"It's been a dream of mine to work on it ever since," says Schipper. "It's such an imaginative telling."
Schipper found a willing cast at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People's Urban Indigenous Theatre Company and is presenting an all-aboriginal Little Red Riding Hood at the Kids Venue of the fringe festival. The script has been refocused to stress friendship instead of communism.
The performers are mostly teenagers but the cast includes their teacher, Columpa Bobb, a veteran actor who plays the grandmother.
"I don't mean to say this as a negative to Canadian theatre but people don't generally look at native people as the cast for Little Red Riding Hood," says Bobb, during a pre-rehearsal interview. "There is still a divide between aboriginal theatre and Canadian theatre."
Just the fact it is being performed by aboriginal actors provides a different cultural perspective on a well-known western fairy tale, she says. It was one of the reasons they wanted in on the fringe production.
"I think the more we move collectively into the mainstream, the better it is for aboriginal artists," says Bobb, who is also appearing in the fringe production she co-wrote, A House Fell on Our Sister and We Didn't Get No Ruby Slippers. "Where we go one, we go all. I really believe that, and it doesn't mean we have to be swallowed up by whatever the mainstream does. We need to be invited to the party and these types of stories we all grew up with are a gentle way to be included in the cultural fabric."
Little Red Riding Hood is one of Dee Thomas's favourite childhood stories, so the 15-year-old is thrilled to be getting a chance to play the lead, a character with whom she thinks she shares a few attributes.
"She's fun and wants to be more grown up than she really is and to prove a point," says the recent Grade 10 graduate at Technical Vocational School. "She's like me, a little bit."
Joshua Ranville, 22, is a late replacement and couldn't be happier about getting a chance to play the big, bad wolf.
"This is one of my first bad-guy roles," says the graduate of Collège Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau in Transcona. "I like having to be a big, dumb, mean guy who bumps people around."
Both performers are adamant about making theatre their career. Thomas has been taking courses since Grade 6.
"I loved it so much I didn't stop," says Thomas. "It's really important. It's my future goal to become a big star actress."
Ranville has been an actor since he was 11 and made his debut in MTYP's The Rememberer in 1999. That work earned him an MTYP scholarship and training for seven years. In September he is off to study at Vancouver's well-regarded Studio 58 in its three-year acting program.
"Theatre is the main focus of my life," he says. "If I wasn't at MTYP there would be a lot more struggle in my life."